|Superman - The Movie|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2001|
Yes, you really did believe a man can fly, and now maybe you'll believe something equally improbable: that Warner Bros. can issue a truly outstanding DVD. Because this edition of 'Superman' (which, incidentally, was never called 'Superman: The Movie') is terrific, with interesting extras, great sound and a beautiful, color-perfect print. The version included here includes quite a few scenes that were omitted from the theatrical version; not only is each indicated with an asterisk on the printed list of chapters, but they're isolated, too -- easily accessible on their own. What more could a loyal Kryptonian want from this movie?
Well, it still has the same flaws it always did, of course. Although Gene Hackman plays Lex Luthor with great wit and conviction, it's a misconception of the character -- it's awfully damned hard to believe that this guy is the "criminal genius" he keeps proclaiming himself to be. His only assistant is the moronic Otis (Ned Beatty, also good) -- who is in the movie to add the humor that panicky executives felt was absolutely necessary to engage adults. But even though director Richard Donner chuckles on the audio track that Otis is his "favorite character," audiences found him intrusive and uninteresting.
The problem is made very clear in the several documentaries and the ingratiating audio track featuring Donner (on the left-center channel) and "creative consultant" Tom Mankiewicz (on the right-center channel). The movie was produced by the father-and-son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who just wanted to make a profitable movie, and who knew relatively little about the character of Superman. (Created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; how they wound up in the credits of the movie is a story in itself.)
This is why they hired the wildly inappropriate Mario Puzo to devise the story, then David Newman and Robert Benton to write the (ultimately enormous) screenplay. It wasn't that Puzo knew a damned thing about the characters, or about writing movies -- it was that he was associated with the blockbuster hits 'The Godfather' and 'The Godfather Part II.' It wasn't even because Newman and Benton had written the high-camp musical It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman -- it was because they wrote Bonnie and Clyde.
The result was a script that evidently would have appalled every true-blue Superman fan on the face of the Earth -- drenched in camp, refusing to take anything seriously, a cynical effort to distance the writers from anything resembling real interest in comic books. It's the same thing that sank 'Flash Gordon,' 'Mystery Men' and the last two Batman features.
But when Guy ('Goldfinger') Hamilton couldn't direct 'Superman,' the Salkinds almost accidentally made the right decision. They chose Richard Donner as director, not because he had shown any interest in this stuff, but because his 'The Omen' had been a smash hit -- and was filmed in England, where 'Superman' was made. (This all-American movie is British.) The cast was laden with big-name stars -- Marlon Brando as Superman's father, Jor-El, Hackman as Luthor, Glenn Ford as Superman's adopted father, and others in smaller roles, such as Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Terence Stamp, etc. All these were to verify that this was a Real Movie, that, as in the first words we hear on screen, "This is no mere fantasy."
Donner loves the character of Superman, and immediately enlisted Mankiewicz to rewrite the bulky script by Puzo, Benton and Newman (and his wife Leslie). The idea was to make 'Superman' and 'Superman II' simultaneously, as the Salkinds had (surreptitiously) done with 'The Three/Four Musketeers.' Donner launched into the project with enormous enthusiasm, and despite his fondness for the hokey, broad comedy of Otis, he was the right man for the job.
He made the opening scenes on Krypton grand and glorious, austere but beautiful, a civilization that is clearly on a technological level so high we can't really comprehend it -- an idea very hard to bring off, but Donner does it here. And Brando is perfect as Jor-El; majestic, spiritual (though the movie's touches of mysticism don't help), dignified and convincing.
The scenes in Smallville are wonderful, with huge sweeping panoramas of wheat fields with tiny houses or churches off in the distance. It's elegiac, pastoral and as American as Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell -- the visual inspirations for great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. (He died shortly after the film was released, and it is dedicated to him. As a mark of the great respect the entire company felt for him, the dedication appears at the very beginning, instead of at the end, as is the usual case.)
In their chatty, often entertaining commentary track, Donner and Mankiewicz reveal that they really did intend to have three very different styles for the three segments of the movie -- Krypton, Kansas and Metropolis. They achieve the first two magnificently, and everything in Metropolis associated directly with Superman himself is great. The other stuff not so.
There are three documentaries, but since the first two were obviously written and filmed at the same time, they play like two halves of one. Marc McClure, the movies' Jimmy Olsen, walks us around the Warners lot (where not a frame of 'Superman' was filmed), introducing archive material as well as new interviews with participants, including the now-paralyzed Christopher Reeve, the unknown who was chosen to play Clark Kent/Superman.
It's obvious that the interview subjects consider 'Superman' a very special part of their professional lives; the deep affection that Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) and Reeve still feel for one another is vividly obvious in their separate interviews. Everyone seems to like Reeve and Donner a great deal; Donner's tribute to Reeve's courage since his spinal injury is sincere and deeply moving. He says that Reeve made him believe a man can fly -- and now he believes he will see his friend walk again.
In addition to the three well-made documentaries, there is a collection of Lois Lane screen tests, with commentary by legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster. He shows us recently-discovered footage featuring Leslie Ann Warren (too giddy), Deborah Raffin (okay), Anne Archer (okay), Susan Blakely (quite good), Stockard Channing (tough and funny) and Margot Kidder herself -- the easy winner. Christopher Reeve's own screen tests (complete with sweaty armpits) is included as well; he acts opposite Holly Palance as Lois. It's too bad that screen tests for the other possible Clarks wasn't included as well. Rumors persist that Nick Nolte and Sylvester Stallone were strong contenders. Were they tested?
The additional material in the movie itself is sometimes excellent, as in the scene in which Superman returns to the Fortress of Solitude after his "debut" night in Metropolis. Brando is so effective as Jor-El that any additional footage with him is welcome. The sequence in which Superman passes through a series of death traps on his way to Luthor's lair is spectacular but unnecessary. Not half as unnecessary, however, as the additional scenes of dopey Otis sauntering through Metropolis. Overall, though, the new scenes are welcome.
The print quality is outstanding, even in unenhanced letterbox. The colors are rich and vivid, the image is razor-sharp. The sound is also very impressive, although surround had yet to reach the heights it's at now. But the disc is indeed in 5.1. In the opening sequence, in chapter 2, the subwoofer gets a workout as the camera passes Krypton's red sun; the rumbling continues until we enter the atmosphere of the crystalline planet. John Williams' excellent score here is rich in sharp, intense brasses. Brando's voice has a slight echo effect in the left and right rear speakers, suggesting the vast interior of the Kryptonian dome.
The subwoofer fun continues in chapter 3, as that big dome tips back to welcome the arrival of the Phantom Zone, that big floating square that sucks up the three villains who return in 'Superman II.' The right rear speaker kicks in as the Zone arrives; as with Superman later, it moves along the right to the center speaker, then departs the same way.
Chapter 5 contains the fall and destruction of Krypton, with more bass rumbles from the subwoofer and center speaker, and shattering-glass sounds from the left and right pairs. All throughout the sequence, the side speaker fill in with crackles, crunches and crumbling noises.
While the sound team contributes steadily throughout the next 45 minutes or so, it's mostly with ambient sounds of the Kansas prairie, adding to the sense of spaciousness visually realized so splendidly by Donner and Unsworth. In Chapter 13, young Clark (Jeff East) tosses that green crystal into the Arctic ice, and the Fortress of Solitude is born -- visually and aurally, with more crystalline sounds from the side speakers, and more subwoofer joy.
The well-remembered helicopter crash sequence is in chapters 20 and 21; the sound here is well-used but conventional, and not too much use is made of the surround feature, primarily because all of the action is happening right in front of us. Crowd noises occasionally turn up in the side speakers, as does the whoosh of the helicopter blades. It's a great sequence, if overextended.
The new death-trap sequence is in chapter 24, where the sound team has great fun with the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns and the sounds of bullets ricocheting off Superman's invulnerable body. Since Superman is surrounded by guns, so are we, and all the speakers kick in gleefully.
The long climax of the movie -- Superman chasing the two missiles, then cleaning up after the explosion of one (including turning time back far enough to save Lois, but NOT far enough to make the destructive earthquake un-happen) -- is rich with sound and visual effects. All of the speakers play their parts here, as Superman saves a town from flooding, prevents a train from crashing, rescues a school bus about to plunge off the Golden Gate Bridge, and seals shut the San Andreas Fault. (The sound here is especially interesting.)
If you ever had any affection for the character Superman or this particular movie, you've got to buy this outstanding DVD. It's super-good.